Brazil Kiss nightclub fire: One year on, has anything changed (+video)

The devastating fire at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, started when a band lit a flare. But pushing through new safety laws has been difficult, despite the common safety failings the fire exposed. 

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    In this Jan. 27, 2013 file photo, firefighters work to douse a fire at the Kiss Club in Santa Maria city, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil.
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When a nightclub packed with students went up in flames in a small university town in the south of Brazil last year, it was a national wake-up call to the dangers of lax enforcement of safety regulations.

But 12 months after the devastating fire left 242 dead and many others with life-changing injuries, attempts to reduce the risk of another tragedy have been slow to take effect.

The fire at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul, was started when a band on stage lit a flare. There was just one exit – others were locked – for a building that was hosting more than 1,000 guests, far over the legal capacity. By law, the club should have had at least two exits.

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The fire exposed a number of deadly fire safety failings common in venues nationwide, and prompted many to criticize authorities for failing to inspect the venue and suspend its license. The incident reflects Brazil’s persistent jeitinho culture, observers say, in which rules are often bent or ignored in the name of expediency.

“A tragedy of this scale should leave a legacy for the whole of Brazil,” says Santa Maria Mayor Cezar Schirmer, who notes that many Brazilians are still waiting for promised changes to relevant federal legislation.

The deaths of so many college students – a group indicative of Brazil’s increasingly educated middle class and emerging economy – became a national rallying point for higher safety standards. And in the wake of the accident, the federal government promised a national law to meet those calls.

But the law has languished in Congress, as the clamor for new legislation petered out and other issues took precedence on the national level, such as the Mais Medicos initiative to increase the number of doctors available nationwide.

Meanwhile, a state law approved in December that prescribes fire safety measures, such as maximum capacity and smoke control systems, will not be fully effective until Dec. 26, 2014, almost two years after the Kiss nightclub fire.

“This law is certainly a victory, it’s an important improvement, but it’s just the first step. We have to work constantly to enforce it and change people’s perceptions,” says Prof. Luiz Carlos Pinto da Silva Filho, dean of engineering at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

“A federal law would be very important,” Mr. Pinto da Silva says, noting that at present, one state might have high standards of fire safety, while another might have next to none.

Campaigners hope that new fire service and government powers to inspect and fine premises will prevent another accident like the Kiss fire. But until the law is fully enforceable, the fear of another similar tragedy lingers.

“It’s highly likely that other establishments are in the same situation as Kiss,” says Adherbal Ferreira, president of the victims’ association AVTSM, who lost his 22-year-old daughter, Jennefer, in the fire. “If the authorities don’t change the way they are proceeding, certainly, there’ll be another tragedy.

“The new state law doesn’t account for everything but it’s a start. It’s a new legacy for those who were there and a tribute to the survivors who are here.”

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